In the past couple of weeks, people have been talking once again about Jesus Christ Superstar.
Not only did a recent Ted Lasso episode feature a song from the 1970s musical, but the original film is airing on BBC—prompting countless reactions, including many from first-time viewers. It is also celebrating a 50th anniversary tour in both the UK and the US.
Taking place during Holy Week and ending just before the Easter resurrection, the production “casts a skeptical, and at times flamboyantly irreverent, light on the story of Jesus.” It reflects society’s fascination with the Jesus movement of the ’70s, just as Jesus Revolution and The Chosen reveal a growing resurgence of interest in the person of Jesus.
As believers, it is satisfying to see Christ brought to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. And as author Luke Burgis explains, these popular portrayals of Jesus can make us want to conform our desires to his. But memorializing any version of Jesus that appeals to a mass audience, whether in church or in culture, also comes with the risk that we might do the exact opposite and model Christ after our own desires.
That is, we’re in danger of casting Christ as whatever kind of superstar or superhero we value at any given time—a temptation faced by even Jesus’ earliest first-century followers.
The script for Jesus Christ Superstar is told from the viewpoint of Judas, “who thinks highly of Jesus as a political revolutionary figure but is disturbed by the idea of Jesus’ divinity.” In the play, the Judas character sings the famous song lyric, “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?”—referencing the scriptural passage in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13).
Judas and the Zealots hoped Jesus would be an earthly messiah that freed the Jewish people from Roman rule. But there were others who thought Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the revered prophets reincarnated (Matt. 16:14).
After seeing Jesus feed the 5,000, the crowd thought he was the great Mosaic leader foretold in the Old Testament: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). Some were so enamored by Jesus’ supernatural feat that they were going to “make him king by force” (v. 15), but he escaped their clutches.
When some of this same crowd find Jesus later that day, Jesus rebukes them for seeking him out merely for what he could do for them—and yet they still ask him to perform more signs (vv. 26, 30-31).
He responds with a sermon: “I am the bread of life” and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (vv. 35, 53). This “hard teaching” offended his audience and caused a great deal of grumbling, even among his closest followers: For “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (v. 66).
When Jesus asked the disciples if they wanted to leave too, Peter said, “To whom shall we go? You alone have the words of life.”
Here we see a divergence in Christ’s followers. Many were offended by his words, and some left while others stayed. Jesus knew that many in the crowd did not believe and that some would even betray him—yet his most devoted disciples stood by him.
It’s clear that Jesus seemed more interested in discipling the faithful few than in amassing large crowds. And while he never turned away those who were drawn to him, he didn’t shy away from testing their loyalty either.
His sermon clearly seemed to separate the wheat from the tares, but what set these two groups apart? The answer lies in the passage mentioned at the beginning of this piece.
After hearing how others view him, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15). When Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus tells him that only God the Father could have revealed this truth to him. He then declares it as the eternal and unshakable bedrock of his church. Those who hold fast to who Jesus says he is—rather than what the crowd says—belong to him, and those who don’t will fall away.
In the 1800s, Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard talks about the difference between admirers and imitators of Jesus: “An imitator is or strives to be what he admires, and an admirer keeps himself personally detached, consciously or unconsciously does not discover that what is admired involves a claim upon him.”
He points out that Judas was such an admirer, which is why he later became a traitor—for “the admirer is only spinelessly or selfishly infatuated with greatness; if there is any inconvenience or danger, he pulls back.”
Kierkegaard’s problem with Christendom was that it produced admirers but failed to create imitators of Jesus. Imitating Christ faithfully is still a struggle today, especially in cultural Christian contexts—because, as Kierkegaard says, “When everything is favorable to Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower.”
Just like those who wanted to crown Jesus as a prophetic king in the first century, we are still tempted to force Jesus to fit into our cultural, political, or religious molds. Some venerate a conquering Christ, like the gun-toting John Wayne, while others honor a gentle Jesus, like the kindly and inoffensive Mister Rogers.
And whether it’s Jesus Christ Superstar or the Super Bowl ad campaign “He Gets Us,” efforts to make Jesus more accessible to our generation have value, for sure. But they risk casting Christ as a cheap caricature who can draw an admiring crowd but can’t generate imitating disciples.
A. W. Tozer describes a Jesus who is “marvelously adaptable to whatever society He may find Himself in.” Such a figure is “patronized by pro tem celebrities and recommended by psychiatrists.” He can be “used as a means to almost any carnal end, but He is never acknowledged as Lord.”
The problem with a fashionable Jesus is in his followers, not in his fame.
Jesus was famous from the moment he was born. When a group of esteemed wise men told Herod of Jesus’ existence, Herod considered him a rival and enemy of the state. Herod was so afraid that he committed genocide to try and eradicate him.
But what I find fascinating is that the Magi followed a literal superstar to find Jesus. These cultured travelers expected to meet the next Judean king in line for the throne, but they arrived to find a baby, perhaps still lying in a cattle trough, born to a family of no consequence.
In that moment, they could have turned right back around, thinking they made a grave astrological miscalculation. But instead, they knelt down to worship this unexpected king of unconventional glory—honoring him with their gifts and returning home to share the Good News of his kingdom.
In other words, the Magi came for a royal Superstar, but they stayed for the lowly Savior.
Just like the supernova that hung over Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, media and literature can point an unbelieving world toward the shining example of Jesus Christ. They can inspire our respect and admiration and even whet our thirst to seek him.
Superstars can guide us to the manger—but only the Spirit can lead us to eat the Bread of Life and drink the Living Water.
Stefani McDade is an associate editor at Christianity Today.